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“Swinging for the Fences”: The Continued Pursuit of Excellence

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin and Michael Cassano
July 12, 2020

People entering public service tend to have a common motive. They wish to serve a greater good. They wish to play a notable part in helping their “team” succeed. To use a baseball analogy, they want to “swing for the fences,” hitting a home run, advancing team success and eliciting cheers from the crowd. They are willing to take risks to achieve this level of excellence, but sometimes, unintentionally, leaders place barriers before themselves.

The baseball analogy proves apt, providing important perspectives on team leadership.

First, baseball is reflective of an individual activity which is but part of a greater, collective effort. There is an understanding that individual effort is meaningless without the committed, professional efforts of all. Second, to succeed at bat, one has to be prepared mentally, physically and emotionally before approaching the plate. This requires tenacity and endless practice by the individual, while being mentored and coached by others. The image of a solitary batter at the plate is an incomplete picture of the effort needed to get there. Third, the analogy suggests the importance of the why. The most successful of players appreciate baseball as a spectator sport—an athletic display—a form of public entertainment. Keeping the crowd happy is important to keep the team successful. The most successful athletes combine elements of athleticism and showmanship. They will take risks in this pursuit.

These perspectives are easily translatable to the public sector, regardless of discipline. Successful public administrators work within a team-based dynamic, partnering with others inside and outside the agency. Success is rarely viewed, if ever, as an individual achievement; professional networks and relationships support greater levels of achievement for all. Successful public administrators expend great effort preparing themselves for current and future challenges, and in coaching and mentoring newer generations. They appreciate that much of this takes place outside of the public view. Often, there are no laurels for individual victor—the reward is personal pride in excellence. Finally, successful public administrators remain mission-focused, seeking to please “the crowd.” With these foundations, public administrators prepare themselves and their teams to “swing for the fences” whenever possible.

Strategically, a baseball team’s goal is to win the game. Tactically, it is not prudent for each batter to “swing for the fences.” There are times when it is wise to simply get on base, providing another player—a stronger player—the opportunity to hit a home run, bringing in all base runners and optimizing the score. At other times, the batter needs to consider the circumstances of the moment. This might call for another approach, such as a bunt, with the batter striking the ball in a short, controlled manner, seeking only to get to first base, or to sacrifice himself so another player might score, “failing” on an individual level, but contributing to a greater gain for the team.

In certain circumstances, a bunt is the best approach possible. The problem is some coaches and players may begin to make the bunt their approach of choice.

In some public sector agencies, the organizational culture has shifted from the goal of service excellence to one of caution and risk avoidance. The goal is not success, but rather not failing. Within such an environment, employees will take no risks. They will not “swing for the fences.” Instead, they will bunt, bunt, bunt. Taking a safe approach, they avoid assuming any risk, fearful it might contribute to professional failure or informal interpersonal shaming. In their hearts and minds, the minimum becomes both a minimum and maximum, and effort, creativity and adaptability fade. Public sector leaders who accept this behavior enable it, and new generations will accept it as the norm. In effect, this mindset becomes a barrier to success. This can only lead to failure for all involved. Whether it be total failure or simply sub-optimal outcomes based on marginalized efforts, the communities we serve will suffer.

As public sector leaders, we need to build a strong team. We need to recruit and select the best players available. We need to carefully assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual players, placing them where they might do the greatest good as part of the team. We need to leverage and support their strong, mission-focused motivation, encouraging them to apply their best efforts at all times. We need to nurture a team-based culture, recognizing the value each player brings to the team, and the value added through their individual efforts. We need to coach, train, mentor and prepare others, just as we prepare ourselves, readying everyone to face the challenges of our service environments.

We need to play our roles wisely, applying our efforts in both a strategic and tactical manner, gaining the greatest advantage for our teams. We need to be alert for a cultural shift where repetitive bunt, bunt, bunt becomes the pattern, doing what we can to prevent such a mindset from becoming the norm. Finally, when the time comes, we need to “swing for the fences,” encouraging our peers, leaders, and subordinates to do the same. This is the path to victory for the team, this is the path that contributes to service excellence and this is the path towards a higher quality of life for our communities.


Authors:

Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Pysch.), EFO, served in local government for over thirty years, currently serving as a core faculty member in Capella University’s public administration programs. He is President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected].

Michael Cassano, MPA, RN, EFO, CFO, in his fourth decade in public service, is currently Deputy Fire Chief of Operations, Pasco County Fire Rescue, FL.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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